Sunday, April 8, 2018

Aliens: Earth Hive

In my last post, I spoke of collecting and my problem with it. Pictured above are the three different versions of Steve Perry's Earth Hive that I've owned over the years. I have the two omnibus editions still but the original Spectra paperback is long gone, I'm afraid. Sold or lost. The omnibus on the left, the one collecting only the first two of the trilogy, was one of my first purchases on eBay, if not my very first. This was over a decade ago when buying used books online wasn't the smooth operating machine it is now. The book arrived from the UK and I still haven't read it! However, I got the jones to read some Aliens stuff after spending an hour on the fan Wiki, looking up random things. I love the franchise. Love it dearly. I've memorized the movies, devoured the comics, played a handful of the video games (which are, unsurprisingly, uniformly awful), and have read some of the books.

Titan Books has the publishing rights to the tie-in novels and have been reissuing them in omnibus editions, with the inaugural volume being composed of the initial trilogy and subsequent books having only two novels per. I don't plan on collecting them all, especially since many of the novels are actually novelizations of the Dark Horse comics, including the aforementioned initial omnibus. I am intrigued by some of the later novels, including one written mercenary-style by a certain B. K. Evenson(!). Something's got to pay the bills, I guess.

I picked up the first omnibus for cheap as it was beaten up, but I don't really care. This isn't a book I'm going to keep forever. I read the first novel, Earth Hive, in a matter of hours. What draws me to the Aliens franchise outside of the films isn't the same as what draws me to the films. The movies are visceral, thematically deep, coursing with stunning and beautiful imagery. The comics and the books on the other hand make the mistake of explaining too much, but therein lies the appeal. Dark Horse started publishing the comics in the late 80s, and the novels stand as an intriguing historical document, what some might now call retrofuturism: the past's conception of the future and all its ideological consequences. What interested the past about the future, what issues they thought would continue, what problems and topics bothered these writers to the point where they used allegory and metaphor set in the future in the hope of grappling with them.

Thanks to a mixture of historical factors, not all of which I'm familiar with, the Dark Horse comics have a certain aesthetic and thematic and allegorical point of view. Mostly, the 80s "British Invasion" cast a looming shadow over Dark Horse. After Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano and a host of other British talents were imported from 2000 AD and other British magazines, many independent comic publishers stateside wanted a piece of the pie enjoyed by DC and to a lesser extent, Marvel. Dark Horse, founded in 1986, started with Dark Horse Presents, an anthology series similar to 2000 AD in that it was designed to give creators a chance to test out and refine original creations. Bolstered by licensed properties such as Aliens and Predator (which famously were pitted against each other a bit later), Dark Horse Presents provided opportunities for creators like Frank Miller (Sin City) and John Byrne (Next Men), among others. Aliens, as it was simply titled, was released bi-monthly as a limited series with a short story published concurrently in Dark Horse Presents.

Conceived as a metaseries of self-contained miniseries, the Aliens comic series were inspired, aesthetically and thematically, by the films and the British Invasion in equal measures: dark, misanthropic, morally ambiguous, decompressed and relaxed in pacing, and often with extreme violence. Rather than a near-constant Sisyphean war between obvious good guys and obvious bad guys, the comics focused on morally compromised protagonists attempting to survive the ill-advised and dubiously concocted scheme of greedy villains, all of whom suffer the consequences at the hands of the titular aliens. The comics were both a literal sequel to James Cameron's film and a self-conscious and purposeful repetition of the film, using the same structure and same characters and same characterization. The comics were plagued with analogues of Paul Reiser's amoral company man Burke, to the point of exhaustion. Corporate drones, darkly ambitious, manipulated hapless protagonists into confrontations with the aliens, only to meet their demise in gruesome, violent, and sometimes weakly ironic fashion.

The initial miniseries, variously titled Outbreak and Volume One and Book One, follows Hicks and Newt from the film as they're forced into a new confrontation with the aliens, this time on the aliens' homeworld. Or at least, what military intelligence believes to be the homeworld (watch for this detail to be retconned numerous times!) Meanwhile on Earth, the company (Weyland-Yutani) has a handful of alien eggs to be profited from (in some way that's often barely described: military? weapons? human genome interference?) but this goes awry when a cult leader and his acolytes abscond with the infant form growing in their bodies, causing planetary-wide mayhem, inevitably, inexorably. Hicks and Newt return from the homeworld, which they nuked into oblivion (just as in the film), only to find Earth a wasteland, from which they must escape—again! And so ends the first comic series and subsequent novelization by Steve Perry.

Where the films wisely stay away from depicting Earth, the comics plunge headfirst into this reality, giving us all the retrofuturist science fiction claptrap a fan of 90s SF would hunger for: compact discs, headsets, CRT computers, irritating slang, drug addicts using a patois that could only exist in American science fiction of the 90s, the most post-post-postcyberpunk ideas possible. It's all imaginatively bankrupt, of course, a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, a ghost of the universe created by the first two films and shored up by everything these competent-but-not-visionary writers could crib from better thinkers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

One of my least slash most favourite parts of the original comic, for some bizarre reason replicated in prose form in the novelization, is the reveal that the two squash players breaking a sweat are really just avatars in a video game, controlled by two men in business suits. The subtext of the scene, of course, is that the businessmen won't sully themselves with doing the actual work and will go to great lengths to employ proxies. Its inclusion in the comic works as a visual gag, because in the 80s, the fidelity of digital avatars wasn't to the point of perfectly replicating a human form (they still aren't, frankly). Thus, the 80s reader would not expect for these two "people" to be video game avatars, creating a lovely switcheroo, a subversion of the expectations of the reader. However, the whole gag rests on the visual depiction of the avatars as being perfectly human! The gag doesn't work at all in prose! The novelization's use of the gag is so headscratchingly weird. Why not simply adapt the gag to suit the media?

The lack of imagination in this adaptation speaks to the overall dearth of worldbuilding. The characters use "credits" as currency, which is canon from the films, but is also the laziest form of science fictional currency possible. Characters use slang such as "soypro" to refer to soy based food, "brain strainers" for psychiatrists, "olfactories" for scent-based transmission of data (another bonkers bargain-basement-Gibson thing), and probably my personal favourite (as in the one that annoys me the most), "'jector" for television, a groan-worthy bit of future-patois, if not the most.

Even similes are cribbed from other sources, or at least, inspired by. Compare the following: the famous opening line of Neuromancer—"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel"—and this line from Chapter Three—"the building was... a dull gray material that blended in against a sky the color of melted lead."

It's the paucity of imagination that truly damns the entire Aliens franchise: the aesthetic repetitions, the bland SF concepts lifted from second- or third-generation cyberpunk, and perhaps most damning of all, the reductive moral simplicity of the premise.

Alien is the great working-class science fiction movie of the 20th century: a sympathetic portrait of the ways by which the kleptocracy exploits the labour of and consumes the bodies of the proletariat. The biomechanical alien is meant to blend into the ship. The alien and the ship are the same thing: methods by which the Company can exhaust the workers of their sweat, blood, and lives.

The cleverness of the alien's design, in that it melds with the ship, is discarded in James Cameron's sequel, when the aliens colonize the colonizers' space, replacing the industrial aesthetics with the loathsome Lovecraftian biospace reminiscent of ribs and organic interiors. A nice synecdoche for the franchise's direction, I'm afraid, as the insidiously anti-corporate message of the first film is replaced with the on-the-nose cartoon of Burke in the second film. From there, the franchise dispenses with any and all subversive anti-corporate messaging. Instead, we have pablum such as the two businessmen playing a video game to represent their manipulation of labourers. Which the novel and the comic barely explore anyway. The organization which sends Hicks to the alien homeworld is the government! Way to miss the point, fellas.

The question then remains, why did I read this in the first place? Did I even like it? Are these books worth reading at all? The answer is complicated. As I said above, the books function more as historical document of a certain era, what interested these writers, what social topics they deemed important enough to represent symbolically, etc. The estrangement intrinsic to science fiction is almost wholly absent thanks to a) the corporate saturation of the alien antagonists themselves and b) the retrofuturism of the setting. Which isn't to say there isn't idle pleasure to be had in the appearance of the aliens themselves or in the comfort of knowing a premise so deeply in one's bones. They're comfort reads, without a doubt.

The books divert from the films' continuity quite quickly. By the time the third volume of the Dark Horse comics were being published, Alien³ was released, revealing Hicks and Newt were killed. The comics were reprinted with the names changed, Hicks to Wilkes, Newt to Billie, and references to the Hadley's Hope (the colony on LV-426)(things I didn't even need to google) were shifted so that Wilkes and Billie's adventure occurred on another, different colony. Of course, the inclusion of Ripley herself in the third volume is insurmountable. I've never been picky about continuity being perfectly clean so this doesn't bother me in the slightest. Surely, there are some nerds out there who have worked tirelessly to reconcile Ripley's appearance in Female War with her death in Alien³. But that's not our concern.

I am indebted to the work of nerds at the Alien wiki called Xenopedia for some of the history contained herein. I would be remiss in not acknowledging them.

No comments: